It was a good day for omens

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Saturday morning, Evanston, Illinois

My daughters are both ice skaters, which makes practice ice a reality for me, several times a week. On Saturday morning, as the rest of the world is sleeping in, my older one gets to the rink at 5:30 AM. It seems like a cruel joke to play on the old man, but I go along with it by driving her to the rink.

I dropped her off this morning, and went to get some gas in the tank of my minivan. It’s not a terribly long way to South Bend, Indiana, but it’s better to gas up now before I head out later this morning.

As I’m filling up the tank, I noticed that the Starbucks in that neck of the woods wasn’t open yet. You know you’re early when Starbucks hasn’t yet come to life.

Since coffee needed to be procured, I considered my options. There was a Burger King I knew of a half-mile away, and while I’m not a fan of their coffee, it would be better than having a steaming cup of nada in my hand. So Burger King it was.

As I drove north toward the BK, something wonderful presented itself. A former KFC restaurant, which had been converted to a Starbucks, grabbed my attention instead. It was as if the mermaid or whatever it is on the Starbucks logo winked at me. It was a call that I couldn’t ignore.

I pulled into the parking lot, curious why this location was open as the other one remained closed. It was almost 6 AM by now, and my guess is the other one would be opening at that time, anyway. But fate had brought me to this location, instead.

I went inside and ordered my usual, a venti drip coffee. I’ve never gone for lattes or any of their pricier drinks; just plain old coffee works for me. The woman behind the counter was as friendly as could be, and she provided my morning cup of stimulation. Now it was time to add a splash of half-and-half and head back to the rink.

On the creamer station, I spied a single penny. I always make it a practice to pick up a penny and look at the year stamped on it. I’ve written about that penny, and the year associated with it, several times on this blog. And for every story I’ve told, there are several more that I haven’t had the time or the inclination to tell. But today’s was a story that had to be told.

The year stamped on the penny was 1995. I saw the date and blurted out “No fucking way!” without even thinking about it. The expletive had to be a part of what I said, too, because the irony was just too much to consider, especially so early in the morning.

1995 was the last time that Northwestern and Notre Dame have played each other in football. So much has changed in the 19 years since then: the internet, smartphones, social media, the cloud, so much of the things that we think have always been there but really have not. My two children were far off in the future back in 1995. I was still renting an apartment in those days. I weighed significantly less than I do today. And I never, ever said no to having a beer. In short, my life today in 2014 resembles 1995 in very few ways.

Northwestern won that football game back in 1995. For 19 years, I’ve been able to say that Northwestern had bragging rights when it came to Notre Dame. The Domers have the tradition and the aura about their program, but they haven’t had a chance to avenge their 17-15 loss to the school with perhaps the least college football tradition of all.

Notre Dame has a good football team this year, and Northwestern does not. The Fighting Irish lost by a wide margin in Arizona last week, and they may be wanting to take that frustration out on the Wildcats at home, in front of their fans. There’s still a matter of keeping themselves around for bowl consideration, after all.

There won’t be any bowl games for Northwestern this year. All that’s left to play for is pride, and that may not be enough to prevail. But the defensive captain of the 1995 team, Pat Fitzgerald, is the Wildcats’ head coach now, and will be for years–if not decades–to come. He understands what Notre Dame means, as an opponent. Nobody will be any better at getting his team ready for a game like this.

I believe in omens. Perhaps I’ve read too many books, and seen too many movies where a minor thing portends something more important down the line. That’s the essence of storytelling, after all. What seems unimportant at the time can turn out to be something greater. You never know in this world.

So if Northwestern can go into South Bend and pull off an upset–as they did back in 1995–a penny in a Starbucks won’t be the reason why. But it sure will be interesting if it turns out that way. I suppose we’ll find out in a few hours.

UPDATE: The Wildcats did indeed pull off the upset, winning the game 43-40 in overtime. I hope to put the game into words soon, but for now I’ll say that it was a roller coaster ride from start to finish, and Northwestern somehow prevailed. Go Cats!

Gonna wait now

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Northwestern now has two weeks to prepare for their game against Ohio State on October 5. While the Buckeyes have to deal with a should-be-undefeated Wisconsin team next weekend, Northwestern will have the week off to chop wood and climb mountaintops (metaphorically speaking). The planets are aligned for Northwestern on this one.

It looks to me that this is going to be the Big Ten’s game of the year. Has that ever been said of a game played in Evanston before? Not in my lifetime, at least.

And Northwestern has to win this game, if they want to take the next step forward in the world of college football. No moral victories, no coulda-woulda-shoulda, just putting more points on the board than the other team does. If that should happen, they’ll be no way of avoiding coach Fitzgerald and his team for the rest of this season, and for the forseeable future as well.

There’s no reason to think that this can’t happen. Yes, Ohio State put an unfathomable beatdown on an overmatched opponent today. But they can be beat, just like any other team can be. This is going to be Northwestern’s training montage over the next two weeks, a la Rocky Balboa in the Russian winter. If they can then hang with the Ivan Drago of the Big Ten, it will be a fascinating game to watch.

Go Cats!

It wasn’t even close

Yesterday was a big day for college football. Nebraska came to Evanston to play my Northwestern Wildcats, and the game was televised on ABC. None of that would have been possible in the days when I was at Northwestern, but so much has changed since then (take the internet, for starters) and those changes are all for the better.

I gave some thought to watching the game on ABC yesterday afternoon. In fact, I would have planned on it except for one thing: my younger daughter’s play started at 3 PM. She’s put a lot of work into it, and the story itself is very amusing. All of the kids in the show are very talented, too, so it’s a good experience for her to be a part of it.

There are only six performances of the show, and then it will be gone forever. The football game, on the other hand, will be archived, written about, and endlessly available online for whenever I want to watch it. So as interesting as the football game might have been, I made the right choice by going to see the play instead. And my little one lit up the stage, just as she always does.

I got to listen to the end of the game on the radio, and watch the game-deciding field goal on TV from the comfort of my living room. My team lost by the closest of margins (one lousy, stinking point!), but the decision–whether to watch the game or go see the play–was nowhere near that close.

What we’re losing

The last post I wrote in this space made reference to a bookstore that’s closing soon. Bookstores have been disappearing for many years, with the recent liquidation of the Borders chain the most shocking example. The internet is changing the world, with iPads and Kindles and even smartphones filling in the void between our reading habits and the need to lug around hundreds of bound sheets of paper.

The bookstore in question, Bookman’s Alley in Evanston, Illinois, is a long way from a Borders, though. I had never been to it before last week, in part because the “Alley” part of the name was very appropriate. If you didn’t know where the shop was, you wouldn’t be able to find it. And that was probably just fine with the people who were in the know about it.

I took the picture above to remind myself of what the store looks like on the inside. No one picture could do it justice, though. I wished I had spent even an afternoon in there before. It feels more like a study than a bookstore, although commerce was the reason it existed, in the first place. The price of their books is more than what a place like Amazon would charge for the same book, and this isn’t the place to go for the latest John Grisham novel, either.

It’s unfortunate that a place like this, which feels just the way you might want a bookstore to feel, is shutting down soon. I’m happy that it existed for as long as it did, and I realize there won’t be another one like it after it’s gone. The tradeoffs for using ereaders is that printed books, like the ones I saw in Bookman’s Alley, are becoming more and more scarce. When children start using tablets in school–as they are in some places already–we’ll soon have two or three generations who remember what books are, and we’ll  be dying off every day.

The world will always need books. But they may become a curiosity some day, instead of a central  part of our lives. I regret this, but the forces of change in the world–driven by price and convenience–existed well before books ever came along. There’s no reason to believe that ink on paper trumps change over time.

So farewell to Bookman’s Alley, and–to a lesser extent–to the part of our culture that it once served. We’ll always be readers in some form or fashion, but the content we consume won’t always be in the form of books on a shelf (and if you doubt that, just consider how you’re reading this post).  Words on a screen is dramatically pushing this aside, and all we can do about this now is embrace it, whether we like it or not.

A voice to remember

I remember it like it happened yesterday. I probably begin a lot of posts in this way, but this memory is especially vivid.

It was February of 1986, which was my senior year of high school. My father had agreed to drive my sister and I up to Evanston, Illinois the next day, since I had been accepted at Northwestern (more on that here), and I had to give them my decision by March 1. It was one of my last remaining days of high school, and instead of roaming the halls I would be on a college campus instead. That was a very big deal for me.

Watching the Grammys, on a Sunday night that felt like a holiday in some sense, I saw–and heard–Whitney Houston for the first time. She looked positively stunning, but somehow she sounded even better than she looked. It hardly seemed possible for any person to have a voice like that. It was sweet and powerful, in equal measures. My words alone can’t really do it justice, so watch the clip above and hear it for yourself.

As my father drove our rusty, light blue Impala northward the next day, on a trip that was to ultimately change my life, I heard Whitney Houston’s voice inside my head and realized that the future held great things for her. And for several years, I was right about that.

I had nearly forgotten, as all of the madness swirled around her in later years, how amazing her voice was. But hearing the news of her passing on the radio, followed by the inevitable tribute songs, brought it all back to me. As Jackson Browne sang in one of his songs, “That girl could sing. She could sing!”

I never really was a Whitney Houston fan, because teen-aged males weren’t allowed to publicly say that. But I realize now, as I did back then, that her voice was indeed something special. And for the next few days, I’ll be hearing a lot of it on the radio and on TV. But for me, at least, it can never sound any better than it did inside my head, during that car ride from many years ago.

The game that matters most

This post isn’t about baseball, but college football, instead (impressive depth I’m showing, isn’t it?) I wanted to get these thoughts out before the Northwestern-Illinois game coming up this Saturday, which will have offenses moving in both directions for the first time in an NU-Illini game since 2009. I’ll probably turn last year’s Wrigley Field game into a post at some point, but it won’t be before Saturday, at least.

I spent my first 3 and a half years of high school thinking that I would go to college at the U of I in Champaign-Urbana. I cheered for their sports teams, and didn’t have the money to go to a private school or another state’s university, and that was just fine with me. The Orange Crush, Chief Illiniwek, the orange and blue colors, all of it was just what I wanted. If tatoos were the thing for high school kids back then, I’d still have a blocky orange I on me somewhere.

But fate changes things. I wasn’t meant to go to school at the U of I, even though it seemed like the place for me. My acceptance letter got held up for a week or two, and in the meantime I had to think about other places to go to college. I had gathered a stack of college applications from Career Days at my school, but was daunted by the fact that they all required essays and an application fee.

I decided to focus on one school, to save myself the trouble of composing multiple essays (there were no computers to save things on in those days, or if there were, I didn’t have one available to me). I also thought that convincing my parents to spend the money for one application fee would be hard enough, and any more than that wouldn’t be worth wasting any breath over. It just wouldn’t happen.

One of the applications, to Northwestern University in Evanston, also had a letter that had come to my house. They must have received my home address from my high school, or possibly from the ACT people. Nope, there were no emails in those days, either. It was a primitive time back then. I read this two page letter, basically selling the school and saying something to the effect of “don’t let the sticker price scare you away.”

This was important for me to know, because the first time I became aware of Northwestern was through a little throwaway listing of the “most expensive colleges” that appeared in Parade Magazine one weekend. A place called “Northwestern” was at the bottom of the list, and I don’t remember what the other schools were, but I could probably guess them if I had to. But Northwestern’s yearly tuition back then was five digits, and to a kid who thought $50 was a lot of money, any five digits you could throw at me seemed like too much.

So I filled out the application, convinced my mom to write a check for the application fee, and applied for an early admission decision. It was sometime in December, so I figured this would get it over with sooner rather than later. And I needed a deadline to get just about anything done, then and now.

In a matter of days, the acceptance letter from U of I arrived, and I remember how relieved I felt. I frankly even forgot about the Northwestern application, and reverted to my senioritis-filled final days at the high school I was now officially killing time at.

At some point in the spring, perhaps in late January, a letter arrived at my house from Northwestern. By that time, a housing deposit check had been sent to Champaign-Urbana, which–as soon as money started changing hands–meant that I was an official member of the Illinois class of whatever it was (the year doesn’t really matter, does it?) I opened the letter, and remember an involuntary jump in the air when I read the word “Congratulations!” I truly wasn’t expecting it, and haven’t been that surprised by too many things since.

To make a long story short–if it’s not already too late for that–the decision to go to Northwestern meant that I had to completely and thoroughly repudiate the orange and blue. The Chief and I? Splitsville, baby. Otherwise, it would have been second guess city there in Champaign-Urbana. I would have changed the name to Champaign-Urbana-ShouldaGoneThereWhenIHadTheChance. But that’s no way to live, is it?

So the other schools in the Big Ten (and strangely enough, there are eleven of them now) are fine, but only one school gets my interest for football and basketball games. The NU football team was awful when I went to school there, winning just eight games in four years. But two of those games were against Illinois, and I could live with that.

The game coming up this week, which usually ended the regular season for both teams, will now be the start of Big Ten play instead. Illinois is unbeaten, ranked, and playing at home. And they won convincingly last year, too. Northwestern has lost a game, isn’t even in the “also receiving votes” category of the polls, and hasn’t played a down with Dan Persa at quarterback since last November. With all that said, it’s still the biggest game of the year, and I like our chances. I have no other choice. Go ‘Cats!

My second favorite place on earth

I grew up watching Cubs games on WGN in Chicago. It was a central part of my youth, just like the school I went to and the things I did to keep myself amused and out of trouble when I couldn’t watch or play baseball. I watched other shows on WGN too, like Bozo’s Circus and the Ray Rayner show. On some level, I considered myself an honorary Chicagoan, even though I had never set foot in the city and had only a vague idea where it was.

When the time came to go away to college, I always thought I would be going to Champaign to attend the University of Illinois. It was a good school, and a state school that was not exorbitantly expensive. Good enough for me, or at least it seemed that way. But something was missing. When I went to visit the campus, there were cornfields everywhere. I had seen enough of cornfields by that time in my life, and didn’t want to go spend even more time surrounded by them.

But going to visit my other option, Northwestern University in Evanston, was remarkably different. I loved the traffic on the expressways. I loved the setting of the campus, even though it was cold and gray and the Lake was obscured, though it was right there on the campus. But most of all, I loved the complete and utter lack of cornfields. It wasn’t Chicago–not by a longshot–but it beat Champaign in every way I could think of.

The financial aid office worked its magic, and I somehow had enough loans and grants and scholarships to make a ridiculously high-priced education possible. And, although it didn’t overtly factor into the decision, I would also be able to finally see the Cubs play in Wrigley Field. With these issues involved, it was really not much of a decision at all.  Champaign was going to have to get along without me.

My first game at Wrigley was the second home game of the 1987 season, the year that Andre Dawson came to Chicago. I sat in the bleachers, of course, and seeing the green grass on the field for the first time was an unforgettable experience. Like the Eiffel Tower, or Mount Rushmore, or the Grand Canyon, you can look at pictures all you want to, but seeing it with your own two eyes is something else altogether. And so it was for me on that day. At 18, I had done what the seven year-old me, and the ten year-old me, and the 15 year-old me, had always dreamed of doing.

I’ve lost track of how many games I’ve gone to at Wrigley since that day. It’s upwards of 100, at least. When I was in school, I would deliberately schedule classes so that my afternoons were open during Spring Quarter. After I graduated and moved into the city, I usually lived within a few blocks of Wrigley, so that even if I wasn’t at a game, I could still go by the field and take comfort in its presence. And today, I’m still in the city and only a short drive or a longish el ride away.

Wrigley Field is not my home, and for that reason it can never be my favorite place on earth. But, at the same time, I can’t imagine that the physical or emotional distance between my home and Wrigley Field will ever be too great. No other place I’ve ever seen or been to can have that sort of an anchoring effect on me, and for that reason Wrigley is, and probably always will be, my second favorite place on earth.